Sri Lanka‘s main opposition party has named Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defence chief who spearheaded a military campaign to end the country’s long-running civil war but faces accusations of human rights violations, as its presidential candidate.
Gotabaya, 70, a brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was a powerful defence bureaucrat under his brother’s government, which defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels’ 26-year revolt in 2009.
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The former president announced his brother’s candidacy to cheering supporters at a rally on Sunday in the capital, Colombo.
Earlier at the campaign event, Rajapaksa was named the leader of the Sri Lanka People’s Front, under which Gotabaya will contest.
“My top priority will be ensuring security in the country without allowing extremist terrorists to raise their heads,” he said at the rally, which was shown live on private television channels.
“I will accept responsibility for your safety, and the safety of your children and your loved ones,” Gotabaya said to cheers.
Gotabaya promised that, if elected, he would prioritise Sri Lanka’s national security and the revival of its economy, which has been hit by a lull in tourism after attacks in April.
Sri Lankans are still reeling from the Easter Sunday bombings when suicide bombers blew themselves up in luxury hotels and churches killing more than 250 people and shattering the island’s decade of relative peace since the end of the civil war.
The attack was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group.
Most Buddhist leaders and some victims of the attacks have since openly expressed their desire for the Rajapaksa family to return to power.
Al Jazeera’s Minelle Fernandez, reporting from the rally in Colombo, said Gotabaya told supporters his actions were proof that he was capable of taking on the challenge.
“Those who believe in Gotabaya Rajapaksa celebrate as he has officially sought the nomination of the party but there are those who have misgivings that the man who led the Sri Lankan war machine with all the allegations against him may indeed become this country’s leader,” Fernandez said.
Other parties have not formally announced their presidential candidates but Gotabaya’s main challenger is expected to be Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa, a United National Party politician who is also popular with hardline Buddhists.
Gotabaya’s candidacy will probably put President Maithripala Sirisena in a quandary in seeking a second term because the Sri Lanka People’s Front is an offshoot of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which Sirisena leads.
Many Freedom Party members have sided with the Rajapaksa brothers.
Sri Lanka must hold the presidential election between November 8 and December 8. Incumbent Sirisena’s first term ends on January 8.
Accused of abuses
Gotabaya is a hero to many majority Sinhalese, who see him as a prospective strong leader, but is feared by minorities and victims of human rights abuses.
As secretary of defence under his brother’s rule, Gotabaya played a key role in ending the Tamil Tigers’ campaign for an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils. But he was accused of using extralegal methods and cracking down on those who criticised his style.
Gotabaya was accused of running abduction teams known as “white van” squads that whisked away rebel suspects and journalists deemed to be overly critical. Some of the abductees were released after torture, while others were never seen again.
Gotabaya was also implicated in the killing of rebels and civilians who tried to surrender with white flags under a pre-arranged deal in the final days of the civil war.
Ethnic Tamils say they handed over their children for investigations at the request of the military but did not see them again.
According to a United Nations report, some 45,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the last months of the war alone.
After the war’s end, Gotabaya also took up the extra role of city development in which he used the military to evict people from their homes for land acquisition.
The government quickly reacted to Gotabaya’s candidacy, with Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera tweeting, “Do #SriLankans want to return to the isolation and darkness of the past?”
Gotabaya, a US citizen, has said he has started the process to renounce his United States citizenship because Sri Lankan law does not allow dual citizens to hold political office.
However, he has two court cases pending in Los Angeles filed by torture victims and a daughter of a top journalist killed in 2009.
Gotabaya has denied the allegations, which his spokesman Milinda Rajapaksha says are politically motivated.